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Spotlights and Deep-Dives

The most innovative distillery from Down Under: Archie Rose

Distillery Spotlight: Archie Rose Distillery

Region: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.

 

"Our six malt mash bill produces an extremely low-yielding spirit – a small sacrifice for a rich and expressive flavour, full of distinct regional character."

– Dave Withers, Master Distiller of Archie Rose Distillery

 

 

You’ve only just turned 23 years old. You’ve got a comfortable, secure job at Deloitte. And you have neither the experience of running a business nor do you really understand the science behind distilling alcoholic spirits. How, then, did you manage to set up a distillery in Sydney and turn it into Australia’s most awarded distillery across the categories of whisky, rye, gin and vodka?

We’re talking about Archie Rose Distillery Co., the first successful distillery to open in Sydney in over 160 years. Most distilleries focus on just one type of spirit – whether it is a single malt whisky, rum or gin. Archie Rose produces a diverse range of products, including single malt whisky, rye whisky, gins, vodkas and liqueurs.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

Started by a fresh-faced and boyish-looking founder, Will Edwards, the distillery had gone on to win so many awards in the past 6 years across so many spirits categories that would give longstanding Scotch distilleries a run for their money.

 

(Image Source: University of Sydney, St Andrew’s College)

 

 

“I did not know what I wanted to do”

In his early twenties, Will Edwards had a CV that suggested a promising career in conventional corporate life – the kind of CV you’d see on bright-eyed white-collared Sydneysiders. And yet looking back, Will is disarmingly honest about his lack of direction as a young adult.

Will graduated high school and “didn’t know what to do”. So he received a general Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Sydney due to a “vague interest in business”. After graduation, he still “did not feel like getting a real job yet” and so did a Master of Management which was again a very general degree because he “didn’t know what [he] wanted to do”. After winning a case competition, Will “fell into” a consulting job at Deloitte which was once again, not the result of any conscious decision-making on his part.

 

(Image Source: The Matrix Resurrections (2021) Warner Bros.)

 

Perhaps this was the point where Will began to dig deep. He found his day job of Powerpoint slides and excel sheets too intangible and uninvolved. He thought back to his younger days of experimenting with homebrew beers and trying to make dark rum by maturing Barcadi in 5-litre oak casks in his backyard.

While at Deloitte, Will became increasingly drawn to Australia’s local craft brewing and distillation scene. Yet nobody has started a distillery in Sydney. So he started with this question: “Why hasn’t anyone started a distillery in a city like Sydney?” To his mind, if it was possible to set up a distillery in Sydney, someone else would have already done it.

 

Starting an inner-city distillery

Craft whisky and distillation hasn’t quite taken of in Australia in the early 2010s. But Will had seen and visited a fair share of Tasmanian distilleries during his vacations.

 

(Image Source: Lark Distillery)

 

Yet the urban gin distilleries of London and a post-Prohibition whiskey distillery within the cloistered streets of New York City left deeper impressions on Will.

 

Kings County Distillery is the longest operating whiskey distillery in Brooklyn, and the first whiskey distillery in New York since the Prohibition (Image Source: Audrey Green)

 

It was when Will visited the US that he learnt that New York City’s oldest distillery was only opened in 2009. The Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, New York City, began distillation in a city apartment above a dry cleaner. The micro-whiskey distillery was opened in 2009, but was New York City’s first distillery since the Prohibition of the 1920s.

The founders of Kings County knew that it was not easy to distil whisky in NYC. Although brewing beer at home is common and legal, distilling spirits involved an eye-watering amount of red tape from Federal permits, State licenses, payment of bonds, wholesale licences and label approvals. 

 

(Image Source: Breaking Bourbon)

 

Still, they went ahead to set up Kings County Distillery and the rest was history.

Returning to Sydney with a renewed vigour, Will spent over a year to research the financial and regulatory viability of building a city distillery within Sydney. He quickly found out the reason no one else was running one.

 

 

It turned out that Australia’s past rulers were rather big party poopers and monopolists – depending on how you look at it. Colonial governors constantly considered legislation to discourage small-scale spirits distillation. An infamous and sleep-inducing document – the Distillation Act of 1862 – imposed minimum quantities of spirits produced per hour, effectively outlawing small-scale distillers and only permitting large-scale distillers to continue. It took Bill Lark, the “grandfather of Australian single malt”, to overturn some of these anti-craft distillery laws in 1990.

 

(Image Source: The Mercury)

 

Even then, existing Federal, State and Sydney City regulations still made setting up a distillery very difficult. To make matters worse, the Federal government would not accept distillery applications until the distillery had already been built and commissioned, making this a financial risky endeavour.

It was nevertheless possible to build a distillery, concluded Will. The Archie Rose team found a spot in a suburb called Roseberry and submitted their distillery application to the City government. The previous distillery application in the City’s record was from 1853.

And so, the first distillery in a major Australian city was born in 2014.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

 

Malt really matters

Much ink has been spilled criticising many modern Scotch whisky companies for being too obsessed with the bottom-line, leading to the use of less characterful high-alcohol-yield barley malt. For instance, Dornoch Distillery’s Thompson brothers swear by organic lower-yielding barley.

And then there’s the criticism against some other whisky-makers who produce less-than-sterling spirit, only to rely on casks to supply the backbone of flavour to their single malts. We won’t mention who they are, but a serious whisky enthusiast may have an idea.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

Archie Rose’s team has similar sentiments, and seems to be taking this idea one step further when creating their single malt. After experimenting with some 20 different barley varieties, Archie Rose settled on 6 types of barley malt to be used, each with varying flavour profiles and character. As a benchmark, the typical whisky distillery just uses one or two different malts.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

(1) the Australian pale malt used localises the flavour profile of the whisky to Australia, and delivers herbal and slightly floral accents.

(2) Australian amber malt is used to assert a nuanced and deep biscuity character.

(3) Local New South Wales chocolate malt is roasted in small batches and provides distinctively rich and intense flavours of coffee and chocolate.

(4) Peated malt is used to add a subtle touch of earthy smoke.

(5) Caramel malt delivers the aroma of caramel fudge and mild fruitiness.

(6) Aromatic roasted malt offers a deep and complex array of flavours including fig, raisin and Amaretto.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

Dave Withers, Archie Rose’s Master Distiller is incredibly passionate about giving as much voice as possible to the spirit – even before it had been matured in casks. To do so, he says “the most logical way to me was to use all of the different colours of the rainbow, from pale malt to amber, chocolate, smoked malts, and so on.

Master Distiller Dave further explained: “Our six malt mash bill produces an extremely low-yielding spirit – a small sacrifice for a rich and expressive flavour, full of distinct regional character.

 
Distilled new make spirit at Benriach Distillery (Image Source: Benriach)

 

By “low-yielding spirit”, Dave meant that the barley varieties produce much lower alcohol content than the typical varieties used by other distillers. This makes Archie Rose’s production cost much higher. Yet Dave and Will believe that this is a necessary price to pay to create a rich and flavourful spirit.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

Finally, the Archie Rose Single Malt is made by maturing the spirit in predominantly Australian apera (sherry-style) casks, complemented by ex-bourbon and ex-rye casks.

The result is a single malt that has a somewhat savoury nose of fresh herbs, shortbread biscuits, raisins, toffee and dark chocolate, and a well-integrated palate of luscious sticky date pudding, amaretto (Italian almond liqueur) and a final note of espresso.

Most whisky producers may be said to be too cask-forward – that is, to focused on the flavours of casks – when there is more to be said about the malt. Archie Rose explains that its aim is to strike a better balance between malt flavour and cask influence. By having such an oddly specific mashbill (barley malt recipe), Archie Rose showcases the individual character of each malt, and tries to compliment that with the influence of the cask.

 

But it’s not just about barley

And of course, Archie Rose isn’t just a malt distillery.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

The young distillery’s proudest product was its Rye Malt Whisky which achieved had beaten scores of American rye-makers to win the coveted accolade of “World’s Best Rye Whisky” at the prestigious 2020 World Whiskies Awards. This was made with malted rye, instead of the typical unmalted rye, giving it more depth and a distinctive flavour. The result is a layered and aromatic rye with notes of spiced custard, ginger, peach, apple pie with a fresh and lingering herbal finish.

Apart from whiskies, Archie Rose has also bottled a core range of gin and vodka, which are almost as thoughtfully crafted as their whiskies.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

The team sought to re-imagine the traditional London Dry Gin, with unique local elements from Australia. The base spirit is distilled using the same pot stills used for whisky. Then, the team identified native Australian botanicals that could replace the traditional botanicals found in gin. Citrus notes were provided by blood limes and lemon myrtle flowers (native to the forests of Queensland). Herbal notes were provided by Australian river mint (or wild mint) and dorrigo pepperleaf (from the forests of New South Wales). All of this is tired up together with fresh apples, oranges and ginger.

The result is a gin that has cornerstone aromatics of lime and citrus, a solid juniper backbone with rich and expressive notes of stonefruits, garden herbs and eucalyptus.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

On the other hand, Archie Rose’s vodka is made with natural botanical additives and purified through the flocculation method, rather than being put through charcoal filters, preserving the unique flavours of the spirit. According to the distillery, they do not add “unnatural” chemical additives to their vodkas such as food glycerol or xylitol – a common practice for other brand name vodkas.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

 

Don’t forget to have fun

Considering the wide variety of spirits categories, product research and development is a big part of the work at Archie Rose. The distillery pushes out its most experimental releases in limited quantities under the Archie Rose Concepts label. Some of these expressions do not even fall under any recognisable category of spirits. Sometimes, it looks like the distillers just wanted to have fun.

Experiment became reality when the first Archie Rose Concepts release hit the shelves. It was neither whisky nor rum, but was dubbed as the “Behemoth Aged Spirit”.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

The distillery was provided with rich and hop-heavy India Black Ale by KAIJU! Beer brewery in Victoria, and proceeded to distil the ale to create something that is not quite whisky and not quite ale. The spirit is then aged in several ex-bourbon barrels, creating a “crazy, super fruity beer-spirit thing that technically you couldn’t call whisky”.

The taste of this unusual spirit is described in ways that resemble an aged Caribbean rum. It is intense, with tropical fruit and savoury notes, including vibrant notes of pineapple, lychees, aged rum and soy sauce. Archie Rose recommends sipping this neat. Thanks Will Edwards! This sounds great but we don’t know how to use this information since you only produced only some 80-odd bottles of this stuff!

Archie Rose is, after all, the brainchild of a young thirty-something Master Distiller who might have simply wanted to work on a fun side experiment or passion project.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

The distillery has also dabbled with sugar cane in a one-off rhum project, releasing a small batch of an unusual-tasting Virgin Cane Rhum made from local sugar cane from a north-eastern village in New South Wales. Unlike typical aged rums that have sweet, caramelised notes, this spirit is a little closer to rhum agricole, with a slightly more herbaceous note of chervil, olives, marshmallow and earth.

 

 

Our Take

 
The non-square box is a rather unnecessary touch. But we enjoy it (Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

There does not seem to be a typical Archie Rose. Uncorking a bottle could be a bit of a wildcard because we absolutely love some expressions – particularly the rye, whereas others were decent – but not mind-blowingly so.

Yet as a distillery, Archie Rose has a solid reputation and identity. Earnestness and sincerity are what come to mind. There is an obsessive level of thought put into its image, from the beautiful hexagonal box (which almost caused us to drop our bottle) to their stunning industrial-chic bar that gives the distillery more character.

 

One could order themself a Brora or Bruichladdich at Archie Rose’s bar (Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

Sincere efforts have been put into creating its spirits. For a craft distillery with a limited production (compared to the likes of a Glenfiddich – the giant of Speyside), Archie Rose boasts an unusually wide range of spirits besides barley malt whisky, from Australian gin, rye, rhum, to a distilled beer-spirit thing that technically you couldn’t call whisky.

 

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

  

Archie Rose’s “six malt mash bill” may well sound like just marketing puff to you, but engineers and experts have deemed the distillery’s proprietary method (of separately processing 6 streams of different malt) to be novel and inventive enough to qualify for a patent. This means that as far as these experts are aware, Archie Rose’s “six malt mash bill” process is so unique and clever that no other distillery in the world ever had the ingenuity to develop and use this process.

 

 

And at the end of the day, it’s really the people behind the stills who matter. And we have to say, they very likable – especially to millennials. We relate to Will Edwards’ search for fulfilment as he followed the predictable arc of business school to corporate consulting, to now rolling barrels of whisky and rye about.

  

(Image Source: Archie Rose)

 

When all is said and done, Archie Rose’s unwavering commitment to the craft of distillation, and its sincere efforts to expand the world’s appreciation for Australian spirits, are things we want to get behind.

 

 

@CharsiuCharlie